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The field of social demography uses demographic data and methods to describe, explain, and predict social phenomena. It also measures the effect of social forces on population distribution. Distinct from formal demography, which focuses more generally on population composition and distribution, social demography investigates the social-status composition and distribution of a population.
Development of Social Demography
Social demography emerged as an academic discipline in the United States over the course of the last half of the twentieth century. Kingsley Davis coined the term social demography in a 1963 paper (Heer 2005). Previously, the term population studies was used to denote the study of social status using demographic techniques. In 1970, Thomas Ford and Gordon DeJong published a textbook titled Social Demography, which included research exemplars in the field. In 1975 the first conference on social demography was held at the University of Wisconsin.
Social demography developed in the United States as an outgrowth of regular census data, the development of demographic techniques, an interest in scientific investigation, and a general curiosity concerning social issues. Institutionalized by the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Census has received increased funding and been accompanied by increased research activity and scientific rigor with each succeeding decennium. This continuous expansion has offered rich datasets to researchers. Thus, the application of modern statistical methods to demographic data collection and analysis has increased the validity and reliability of demography in general.
Corollary to the development of demographic techniques was a glorification of scientific solutions to modern problems. Social issues came to be viewed as problems that could be solved scientifically. Social demography emerged as a prime tool to isolate, explain, and predict factors influencing social issues such as residential segregation, unemployment, and income gaps between status groups.
Sociology and social demography developed in tandem over the course of the twentieth century. Early social theorists utilized demographic data as empirical evidence of their claims. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, chronicled the experience of the African American population at the end of the nineteenth century through the use of census enumeration data, independent surveys, and cartography. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, along with many others within the Chicago school of sociology, later extended the use of demographic data to support sociological claims of urban growth and population distribution by socioeconomic status. In the late 1950s, Philip Hauser and Otis Duncan codified the connection of sociology and demography in their work Population Studies.
Beginning in the 1960s, training in social demography became formalized into academia. Research and training in the discipline developed at university centers such as Chicago, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan. Also, population research centers at Princeton, Brown, and the University of Texas contributed scholars and research to social demography.
Current Trends in Social Demography
Charles Hirschman and Stewart Tolnay (2005) identify three distinct areas within the current state of social demography: (1) data collection and descriptive interpretation; (2) theory development and model testing; and (3) contextual analysis.
Data collection is a staple of social demography. Modern democracies and consumer economies rely heavily on reliable data and descriptive analyses to fit policies and services to their respective constituents and consumers. Indeed, demographic data and interpretation are ubiquitous in modern society. Politicians, business leaders, historians, and the media offer many, and often contradictory, interpretive reports based on social demographic data each day. Social indicators for income, labor, occupation, housing, immigration and migration, and family status are regularly collected, analyzed, and released to the public.
In addition to data collection and descriptive analysis, social demographers contribute to cumulative knowledge through theory development. Researchers use statistical models to isolate and compare the effects of variables on social phenomena. For example, the sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan was able to test and ultimately refute the “culture of poverty” hypothesis, which was a common theory of the economic disparity between African Americans and whites (1970). Using the demographic method of direct standardization, Duncan held constant the effects of occupation, education, parental status, mental ability, and many other factors affecting income. By varying only the race of the respondent, Duncan showed that black men earned 83 cents to every dollar earned by white men, even though no other significant differences between the groups existed. Race alone was responsible for the seventeen-cent differential, not culture-of-poverty variables such as “father’s education” or “family type.”
Finally, contextual analysis may be a promising area of development in the near future. Contextual analysis investigates the interaction of the individual and the demographic environment in which that individual is situated. The role of structural context on individual behavior is commonly accepted in sociology. For instance, research on “school effects” attempts to show the role of schools in the educational attainment of individual students. However, contextual-analysis reports in education reveal relatively small school effects once the individual’s variables are controlled. Until recently, contextual analysis has been hindered by conceptual and methodological constraints. However, recent developments in statistical methods and software may yield much future research in this area.
Limitations Facing Social Demography
Although social demography enjoys a high status within the social sciences, there are limitations to its applicability. Not all changes that occur within a society are a function of population composition. For example, the mid-twentieth century baby boom occurred across all educational, age, and racial groups. Therefore, the common approaches social demographers use cannot isolate the source of the variation in fertility. The source of the variation in the case of the baby boom was contextual: political and economic circumstances had changed greatly after World War II. The source of the variation in fertility did not, therefore, come from various segments of the U.S. population.
Another limitation for much social demographic research is that it is oriented towards disproving false hypotheses. False hypotheses are uncovered by statistically revealing the amount of variation caused in a dependent variable by exposure to an independent variable. But this technique cannot prove a hypothesis to be true, for there is always the possibility that the true causes of social change are not included in the model.
- Duncan, Otis Dudley. 1970. Inheritance of Poverty or Inheritance of Race. In On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, ed. D. P. Moynihan, 85–110. New York: Basic Books.
- Ford, Thomas, and Gordon DeJong, eds. 1970. Social Demography. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Hauser, Phillip, and Otis D. Duncan, eds. 1959. The Study of Population. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Heer, David M. 2005. Kingsley Davis: A Biography and Selections from his Writings. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
- Hirschman, Charles, and Stewart Tolnay. 2005. Social Demography. In Handbook of Population, eds. Dudley Poston and Michael Micklin, 419–449. New York: Kluwer Academic.
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